Congressional hearing: Majority of vehicles can be self-driving in a few decades

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade held a hearing exploring the issue of self-driving vehicles on Nov. 15 as part of the Disrupter Series. Dr. Mark Rosekind, administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and several industry stakeholders testifying before the committee suggested it could be decades before self-driving vehicles become a reality.

In his opening statement, Rosekind said that 94 percent of crashes are due to human error and behavior, and self-driving vehicles – vehicles that require no human responsibility regarding the vehicle or the environment – can dramatically reduce that number. Subcommittee member Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said that self-driving vehicles can potentially reduce fatalities by 90 percent.

Although the hearing was about vehicles in general, the trucking industry was specifically brought up when subcommittee member Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., asked about job disruptions. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of Consumer Technology Association, said that self-driving vehicles will be the equivalent to what cars did to those who rode horses. Shapiro went on to say that we need more truckers as 60,000-70,000 truck driver jobs are currently open, but that will shift over time.

Shapiro also mentioned that self-driving vehicles will significantly reduce the number of crashes, affecting mechanics, body shops, collision repair shops and the insurance industry. However, the result could be lower insurance rates and lower health costs.

A common theme throughout the hearing was the question of when self-driving vehicles will be ready for the road. Rosekind said nobody knows how far off we are from truly self-driving vehicles or if they are even feasible at this time.

If self-driving vehicles were rolled out today, Rosekind said, it would take 20-30 years for the whole fleet to take over the roads. In other words, there will be a mixed fleet on the roads for at least a few decades.

Automated technology already exists within vehicles, including adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance. Rosekind admitted that self-driving vehicles is proving to be difficult.

Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, stated that self-driving vehicles will not make up the majority until 2045 and will not be ubiquitous until 2055. Laura MacCleery, vice president of Consumer Policy and Mobilization, was less confident of a timeline.

“So we think that it’s not probably decades away, but it’s really an unknown in terms of the exact timeline when these vehicles can come on the road,” said MacCleery.

MacCleery was more concerned with claims of safety, suggesting companies should share data with the public.

Right now thesafety benefits of autonomous driving are speculative and based on data held entirely by the companies,” MacCleery said.

MacCleery also said vehicles that are currently touted as self-driving are actually not there yet.

“That’s misleading to consumers, who actually need to be able and poised and paying attention to take over the wheel at a moment’s notice,” MacCleery said. “We know that human beings have a hard time coming in and out of paying attention to situations. We think that kind of overselling of the technology represents a particular hazard.”

Subcommittee Chairman Michael Burgess, R-Texas, called self-driving cars the “most significant automobile-related safety development in our lifetimes.” Despite plenty of concerns, an equal amount of time was used to express the need for urgency rolling out the technology.

Many pointed out that auto fatalities increased for the first time in decades in 2015, mostly related to human behavior. With automation leading to reducing crashes, reducing fuel consumption, more efficient traffic flow and increasing ride sharing, several subcommittee members and witnesses expressed the need to allow innovation and experimentation without delay.

“We cannot afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Burgess said.

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